Bless Me, Ultima

Rudolfo Anaya’s 1972 novel “Bless Me, Ultima,” a coming-of-age story set in the Mexican-American communities of New Mexico in the 1940s, was a word-of-mouth bestseller for two decades before it finally got a mass-market release. It took another two decades after that to get a film version produced (Anaya needed some convincing), but those who have loved the novel — assigned to countless students over the years as a superlative example of Chicano literature — will find it worth the wait.

The book and film reflect a culture that has mostly vanished but whose influence is still felt in the American Southwest, in the remnants of the religious and superstitious traditions that thrived before the white man arrived, and which still linger in spite of those cultures’ assimilation into mainstream America. Those of us who grew up in that part of the country, even if we don’t have Mexican or Native American forebears, can see our cultural roots in this mystical, spiritual, and very human story.

Adapted faithfully and with evident respect by writer-director Carl Franklin (“Devil in a Blue Dress”), “Bless Me, Ultima” is about a 7-year-old boy named Antonio (Luke Ganalon) growing up in a small New Mexican village at the end of World War II. His three older brothers are off fighting. His father (Benita Martinez), a cheerful dreamer, wants to move to California someday to seek adventure and fortune for his family. Antonio’s mother (Dolores Heredia) wants only for Antonio to become a priest. The family and nearly all of their neighbors are Catholic, but many old native traditions persist.

Case in point: Ultima (Miriam Colon), an elderly, indomitable curandera, or medicine woman, who still practices the old ways of healing: a mixture of herbal remedies, elixirs, and prayers. Many in the community, even fellow Mexican-Americans who come from the same culture, scoff at her, calling her a witch. But Ultima is not an old fool. Ever stalwart, she is quietly, stubbornly confident in her beliefs and practices, seeing no need to prove herself to anyone. Antonio’s parents respect her (she was midwife at his birth) and invite her to live with them in the closing days of the war.

The tender relationship between Antonio and Ultima is the film’s heart and soul, the old woman protecting him as she teaches him about the life’s challenges. When his brothers return from the war, physically intact but changed by the horrors they faced, Antonio catches a glimpse of the world’s potential for cruelty. (There’s also an incident with a shell-shocked veteran who meets an unfortunate end.) Closer to home, the boy sees Ultima heal his uncle Lucas (Reko Moreno) from a “curse” placed upon him by three sisters who actually do practice black magic. The women’s father, Tenorio (Castulo Guerra), a vicious saloon owner, cannot intimidate Ultima: “Don’t threaten me, Tenorio,” she says. “You will know the power of my medicine.” What could have been a campy line from a fantasy film is here given awesome strength by Miriam Colon’s fierce performance as Ultima. Do not mess with this woman.

Though Antonio is the main character, he doesn’t take action very often. Mostly he observes, quietly learning the ways of the world, discovering how to blend the old with the new as his homeland finds its place in the United States. (New Mexico was admitted to the union in 1912, just 33 years before the film is set.) Inactive protagonists work better on the printed page than on the big screen, and the film gets restless now and then, young Luke Ganalon’s cherubic performance notwithstanding. But it’s a thoughtful, sentimental fable that resonates across the years. The problems Antonio faces, while rooted in his cultural background, are relatable to anyone who was ever a child.

B (1 hr., 46 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, some mild violence.)

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